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Sunday, May 19, 2024

VR Helped Me Visualize Gender Dysphoria

I’ve spent a lot of time in VR. Some of it is impressive; some, not so much. But at this year’s SXSW in Austin, Texas, I got the chance to try a virtual experience called Body of Mine that opened my eyes to what this tech can really do. I didn’t explore “the metaverse.” Instead, I got to explore myself.

Body of Mine is an experimental storytelling experience. It’s interactive, but not a “game,” per se. Instead, the VR environment puts the viewer in the body of someone with a different gender than their own. I’m a masc-presenting cis man, and so the artists who built it put me into a feminine woman.

Matching Up

The artists slipped an HTC Vive headset over my head and strapped several motion trackers to my body. My ankles, wrists, upper arms, and waist each had a tracker that corresponded to the 3D model of a woman’s body, inside the virtual world. 

It took a little while to set up, but once it was ready, I was looking through her eyes. My arms were her arms. Her legs were my legs. My breasts were … wait, hang on.

The artists encouraged me to explore and touch different parts of “my” body by looking down at myself and into a mirror that was positioned directly across from me. The illusion wasn’t quite perfect, but it broke through a psychological barrier that few pieces of media ever have. When I play video games with an avatar of a different gender, I might feel like the character I control is “me.” But here, I inhabited this body in a way that even other VR games don’t really pull off.

Raising my hands to touch “my” arms felt natural. I’m not sure if that’s because my motion was tracked more granularly or because the artists prepared me for what I was going to see. But it also felt a bit jarring. I was inside this body, but it wasn’t mine. I know my body pretty well. I have fairly sturdy arms. I have a fair amount of body hair. I don’t have breasts. I had none of this in common with this woman’s body.

When I touched certain parts of my body—such as my arms, legs, belly, and head—the model would start to glow in that spot. Then, an audio clip would play. Body of Mine’s team interviewed around 20 trans people to let their words and stories guide this experience, and you hear their voices while you explore.

“We wanted to dive into the actual sensation of gender dysphoria and the physical manifestations of that,” said Cameron Kostopoulos, Body of Mine’s creator. “In order to do that, we wanted to have you relate to your own body, and then through that relate to these trans stories.”

Body After Body

Courtesy of Body of Mine

After a few clips, the experience changes. The body you start out exploring disappears in a brilliant and enchanting effect that dissolves parts of your body bit by bit. Then, in the mirror, I start to see more bodies appear, one after the other. 

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